Books by Black Women

To honor Black History Month, I decided to intentionally support black women writers. Some of the below books were borrowed, some bought within the past year but only read this month, some preordered or bought but not yet read. I hope you find a book or two that you’ll love in this list. Ask me any questions you want!

Read:
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Contemporary young adult)
The Big Bed – Bunmi Laditan (Picture book)
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
Home – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
The Wedding Date – Jasmine Guillory (Contemporary adult)
The Last Black Unicorn – Tiffany Haddish (Memoir)

Bought:
The Belles – Dhonielle Clayton (Fantasy young adult)
A Princess in Theory – Alyssa Cole (Contemporary adult romance)
Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Contemporary adult)

Preordered:
Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi (Contemporary young adult)
The Weaver’s Daughter – Sarah E. Ladd (Historical adult romance)
The Proposal – Jasmine Guillory (Contemporary adult)
Dread Nation – Justina Ireland (Historical adult fantasy)
Pride – Ibi Zoboi (Contemporary young adult)

Let’s Talk Socks

I wear socks almost constantly. I’m cold natured and I feel much colder if my feet are cold, so I have amassed a small army of pairs to help keep me warm. Although I grew up only wearing white socks, in college at added black to my repertoire. Now I have tons of colorful, patterned socks, mostly ankle socks.

I might choose to wear a certain pair for the padding or arch support, to go with boots or tennis shoes or dress pants. But when all else is even, I choose based on the traits or feelings I want to have while wearing them.

I don’t really think that my socks embue me with Gryffindor-eque courage or anything. But knowing I’m wearing them, that I chose them for this purpose, is helpful. It stays in the back of my mind.

Let’s take my superhero socks, as examples. Last week, I got home from a Bible study hangout downtown. I was so tired, but I had a lot to do when I got home to prepare for the next day and the coming weekend. After I took a shower, I opened my sock drawer and surveyed the kingdom of clean pairs. I have a lot of black socks, a few white athletic socks, my narwhals socks, Gryffindor socks, Hufflepuff socks, Doctor Who socks, and superhero socks. I had a lot to do and wanted to get it all done efficiently and get to bed quickly, so I focused on my superhero socks. Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl were all clean. Supergirl gives me a general boost, and reminds me to remain optimistic. Wonder Woman helps me feel empowered to accomplish something difficult without becoming disheartened. Batgirl is tough and funny and smart and kind of crafty. I chose the Batgirl socks because she thrives in the night, and I needed to, too.

I’ve noticed that I wear my Slytherin socks more often than those of the other houses. I find myself wanting the cunning or confidence of a Slytherin far more often than I want the reminder to be loyal or intelligent or brave. My fox socks remind me of a specific friend, so when I wear those it’s a bit like having him with me during the day because I’m thinking about him more often that day. My Doctor Who socks, though beloved, are old and I haven’t watching the show in years. Still, I find myself drawn to the striped TARDIS pair and the yellow Daleks. At St. Patrick’s Day, I wear the pair I bought in Ireland. My mom gave my pandas with blue hearts for Valentine’s Day. I keep a whole armful of Christmas socks tucked into my sweater drawer until December.

I didn’t notice this phenomenon until last November, when I recorded on Twitter how much I had written that day, what project I’d worked on, and other details, including a photo of the day’s socks. I thought it’d just be a quirky excuse to add a colorful photo to the tweets, but it became a profound part of my ritual. I wore a different pair of socks every day that month and was more aware of what I wanted or needed when I chose a pair.

I think most people have a shirt or tie or dress that they really like and feel good wearing. I remember exactly what I wore on my first first date with Tyler because I intentionally chose to wear all my favorite things, wanting to feel as confident as possible (black turtleneck with heart-shaped buttons down the sleeves, darkest skinny jeans, black flats, peacock button earrings).

A friend and I recently discussed this accessorize-for-a-boost phenomenon. She had a favorite blouse, of course, but when I described my sock choices, she shared that she has pieces of jewelry decorated with symbols for strength and endurance. Based on what she feels like she needs that day, she’ll wear one symbol or the other, or perhaps both.

Is there anything you like to wear when you want a boost? What is it, and how specific is the boost?

Why Lent?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this. I didn’t grow up in a church that observed Lent and I don’t have a degree in Biblical studies or Old Testament or New Testament or divinity or anything similar. As a kid, the most notice I generally had to Easter’s arrival was Palm Sunday. I heard reference to Lent but was under the impression that Catholic people observed it, and no others. Ash Wednesday was a Catholic observance; Mardi Gras was for New Orleans and a few predominantly Catholic countries.

As a high schooler, I had tried to observe Holy Week, in that I reminded myself it was Holy Week, read Scripture passages set during the week before Christ’s crucifixion, and wore black on Good Friday. This limited but well-meaning personal observance sparked during the spring break of my junior year. I was on a school trip to Madrid when I, two friends, and a chaperone observed a parade for “Holy Thursday”. Candles, marchers in hoods resembling KKK hoods, rugby-built men carrying a platform on their shoulders strewn with red roses, depicting Christ in a crimson robe and wearing a crown of thorns. The platform which followed carried a much larger, more elaborate representation of Christ’s mother, with painted tears, gold filigree crown, a green veil, and white roses placed around her robe. People rushed to this one to try to touch a petal, her robe, the platform itself.

Although I disagreed with the elaborate recognition of Mary in contrast to the stern, strained reaction to Jesus (although, it might have been appropriate considering that the procession mimicked Christ’s walk from Gethsemane to his trial), the observance and event made a deep impression on me. I recognized that Holy Week is honored and kept by Christians worldwide, and I wished to better observe it as well. I didn’t hear “Maundy Thursday” until I started working at the Christian publishing company where I work now.

So what is Lent? As best I understand, Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Good Friday. It mimics Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and begins with Ash Wednesday, on which we remember that we are sinful people with no hope of redemption outside of Christ. That’s why people (not just Catholic people) get ashes put on their forehead in the shape of a cross, to remind us that we are dust, that we came from ashes and will likewise return to them. That’s what Lent is designed for, to remind us how miraculous and needed and holy and generous Easter is. Lent also helps us consider what it must have been like to be Jesus, every step on his journey to Jerusalem taking him closer to false accusation, torture, abandonment, and death. We know Easter will come, just as Jesus knew it, but that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t incredibly hard.

Traditionally, people give up something—like sweets or social media—during Lent for a similar reason. To make the journey harder. To simplify your life so you can appreciate what you have year round. To remind us of Christ’s struggle to remain sinless in the wilderness, when he fasted and prayed. You’re supposed to make a change that costs something, and most people fast from something (obstain from something), but others add something. I’ve done both.

In the four years since I started working here, I have observed this aspect of Lent 3 times. One year I fasted from food every Wednesday. One year I got up early and watched a new video in a devotional series every morning. One year I gave up sweets except on Sundays. (Traditionally, Christians do not fast on Sundays because Sundays are the days set apart to remember Christ’s resurrection, which freed Christians from the hopelessness of sinful life.)

I noticed that the Lent I got up early to watch the devotional videos, my life didn’t become simpler as it was meant to. I enjoyed the practice, the discipline, and the videos themselves. But I was mostly lying in bed listening to other people worship and pray, trying not to doze off again. The videos become something else on my to-do list, and the mental weight of that left my insides more jangled than before. And jangled is not the point of Lent. Not as I understand it.

Why Lent? Because my heart needs to get quiet. I need to reach out for God, lean on God, rest in God, in an organized way. I used to be incredibly disciplined and focused in more-or-less every area of my life. Now, not so much. I was also very pharisaic in those days, exerting control over everything possible to help me cope with my many anxieties. So I want to recapture the good of my once prayer life—the devotion, the discipline—without also lashing in the bad—lack of understanding, inability to let go of control. But adding a new item to the list is the last thing I need.

This year, Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. It’s weird in the sense that a lot of people will be fasting from sweets or carbonated beverages on Valentine’s Day, a day hyper focused on both. Also, it’s a day hyper focused on romantic love. But in the sense of this being a day devoted to celebrating love more broadly, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to celebrate Ash Wednesday and to begin simplifying and resetting our lives. I’m picturing couples at quiet dinners, dressed up, leaning toward one another with ashes on their foreheads. I’m imagining people with roses in vases, dancing to music and cleaning out their closets. I’m picturing people nibbling on chocolate as they clean off their desks and lay their Bibles in the center. I see people circling April Fool’s Day on the calendar and writing “Easter” inside.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, only Christ’s love for us can offer us forgiveness and hope. But for those of us who want to be in God’s community, who believe Jesus is both human and God, who have promised Jesus they will try to follow his example, Lent is a great time to reset our perspectives and lifestyles and motivations. It’s 40 days to make a change, to build your life differently, to learn to pray constantly. I hope the Lent can be that for you.

Here are a few ideas if you want to observe Lent this year but are nervous because it literally starts tomorrow:
-Do something creative every day while praying. Color, knit, fold paper swans, write new a poem one stanza at a time.
-Make Saturdays and Sundays social media free.
-Plan a special trip to help you get away, rest, and reconnect with God.
-Commit to studying a new psalm every day.
-Sit in a different place at church every week.
-Meet with friends every Tuesday to journal about Bible passages and write prayers.
-Fast from food once a week to remind you to rely on God for sustenance.
-Memorize one new Bible verse every week.
-Turn off your radio during your commute. Pray for strangers you see nearby or worship with just your own voice.
-Attend a different worship service during Lent than your usual.
-Pick a local organization to bless in a different way each week. (If you aren’t sure how, call their offices to ask for suggestions.)
-Fast from complaining, gossip, or another language-oriented sin.
-Bless each of your neighbors with a meal, yard work, or good conversation.
-Only read books by authors of a gender, race, or other identity not like your own.
-Send one encouraging message every day to someone who won’t expect it.

4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother is. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you saw your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

Memories of Being Read To

My mother’s reading voice is still one of my favorites on the planet—yes, including Morgan Freeman’s and Idris Elba’s. She was a stay-at-home mom for 22 years and always emphasized reading to my brother and I. For many years she thought that she read to my brother too much because he didn’t like reading as he grew older, though he’s come back around. But I always recognized the importance of books and her love of them.

I wanted to read long before I could. I remember the process of learning to read and was just precocious enough that I wondered how my reading relationship with my mother was going to change when I didn’t need her to read to me anymore. I love being read to, and was at times frustrated that I couldn’t read myself, but I did so love being read to.

However, my mother still emphasized reading with us by paying a lot of attention to our summer reading and what we were reading at school. She continued to read to us at times, too. The one I remember the best is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a summer reading requirement that was one of the first really visceral reading experiences I’d had. And mom made it clear that it was that way for her, too, wrapped up together under the afghan. Her example showed me that reading could just as immersive to adults, defying my previous idea that reading is only fun when you’re a kid. 

My 4th grade teacher, Ms. Harris, was one of the rockstar teachers at my school. At least to the kids. Everybody loved her and everybody looked forward to her class because she made a point to read to her classes every single day. And she was very good at it. Presumably, she still is. Some books were staples of every year’s class, like The BFG by Ronald Dahl and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, but she also read The Secret Garden to us and poem after poem in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.

Ms. Harris and librarian teamed up to get us excited about the brand new book that was making a lot of waves in the librarian and literary world: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember the librarian’s pitch to us during Library Time, as we were all trying to pick out our books for the week. And it didn’t sound all that good to me. I wasn’t really interested in reading about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I was much more interested in reading about Dorothy or a young woman named Kate who helped save a train full of people or more Little House books. Only one person in the class took that first available copy of Sorcerer’s Stone home with him. His name is Adam and I have no idea where he is but I cannot think about that book without also thinking of him. Ms. Harris and the librarian chose to counter our overwhelming lack of enthusiasm by making it the next book Ms. Harris read to us. By chapter 3, Sorcerer’s Stone had become our all-time favorite listen, even as we mispronounced most of the names. We would riddle Adam with questions, begging him to tell us what was going to happen next. Blessed soul, he never gave in. He preserved that reading experience for us.

I also can’t think about the early Harry Potter books without thinking about Alex. I’ve written about him before. He had relatives in England who sent him a brand new copy of The Chamber of Secrets when it came out. And we got to start it right after we finished The Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember seeing that colorful paperback cover for the first time in Alex’s hands. And when I think about that book, I don’t picture the cover of the hardcover copy I own and have reread many times; I picture that paperback book in his hands, blue car flying above the Hogwarts Express in the English countryside. I forgot, though, that Ms. Harris read it to us until years later when I was rereading the series ahead of the release of the 4th or 5th book. Professor Sprout house was teaching second years to repot mandrakes. As she instructed them, she indicated that she would give a thumbs-up when it was okay to take their earmuffs off. Ms. Harris’s thumbs would bent back extremely far in an almost double-jointed arc. And as she read that sentence to us, she had turned up her thumb. I read the sentence years later, I could see it in my mind. Her red jumper dress, her red nail polish, her tanned skin, sitting in her butter-colored wooden rocking chair, the arc of her finger under the projection of her voice.

Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love this series so much is because the first two books were read to me. However, I also find it important that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book, and one of my favorite books, and it was the first one I read by myself. It was my first step alone down the path of this series.

The last time I was read to corporately, shall we say, was in 8th grade. My 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Walker had also been my 6th grade teacher. I was at a relatively small Arts and Humanities magnet school, so the class hadn’t changed much in the year between. In 6th grade, our favorite book we read and studying that year was Holes by Louis Sachar. By the time we were in 8th grade, the movie was coming out. We talked about how much we loved that book, and somehow we came up with the idea of reading it again. But rather than trying to get copies and add assignments on to our existing load, she offered to read it to us during class. It was glorious. We loved to hear her reading anyway, and we loved her, and we didn’t care that we were supposed to be way too old to be read to.

I’m very grateful to report that I’m still be read to. I’m a regular subscribed to Audible, which has helped me read books I may never have gotten to otherwise, including A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. I’ve listened to The Martian by Andy Weir three times because I love the narrator so much (I own a paperback copy, too) and my next re-listen will probably be the exceptionally well performed and well written The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or the Grammy-winning The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher.

My best friend Kayla and I also like to read new children’s books, and occasionally the beloved books of our childhood, to each other. And we have no shame in that. Children’s books are good literature and a really good picture books are enjoyed by adults, too. That’s part of the point.

Kayla and I are further unique in that we also like to read longer works to each other. Kayla’s mind tends to wander with audiobooks, but she can listen to at least short bursts of me reading a novel to her. The first time this happened, I had just finished Kiera Cass’s The Selection. I called her and said something like, “Oh my gosh this is the most amazing book and you’re going to love it! When can you get it?” The answer was, “Not really any time soon,” and I said, “Okay, what if I just read you the first page though?” And that quickly became read the first chapter, one more, then the entire book. I did most of it by Skype, and we proceeded to read a few books to each other that way, including Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Just this past year, Kayla read the opening chapters of Maureen Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love to me at Starbucks one Sunday morning. She then gave the book to me so I could take it home and inhale the rest myself. But I “heard” the words in her voice. And she was right, it is the cutest book ever.

We don’t always have time to do that anymore, and it’s all so much faster just to read a book yourself most of the time, but we still love it. It’s easy to feel loved when someone is reading a book they love to you. 

My current audiobook is A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab.
My next audiobook is The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish.